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Dominic Vance

Mr. Ortiz
February 5, 2020
The Question of Hamlet’s “Nobility”
As the titular character draws his last breath in the ultimate scene of Shakespeare’s

Hamlet, Horatio ruefully declares, “Now cracks a noble heart” (5.2.397). Though it is easy to

dismiss this as a “throwaway” line fueled by grief, Horatio’s words make quite the controversial

claim: that Prince Hamlet was, at his core, a noble man. While we know that Hamlet is “noble”

in the sense of belonging to the ruling class, this is clearly not the definition of the word that we

are looking for. Merriam-Webster provides an adequate one: “possessing…superiority of mind

or character, or of ideals or morals”. A reader can easily be tricked into sympathizing with the

young prince in his quest for revenge. Nevertheless, upon closer examination of the text, it

becomes apparent that he does not possess the qualities befitting of a noble man.

Before we can begin to consider Hamlet’s morality in the play, we must first address a

crucial question: whether or not he possesses “superiority of mind”. This is a very difficult issue

to resolve, since most of the surrounding characters are unable to tell if his supposed madness is

genuine or not. The clearest proof can be found in the play’s final scene, as he prepares to duel

Laertes to the death. With his life on the line, there is no longer any real need to maintain a

façade of insanity. As he asks for his opponent’s forgiveness for Polonius’ death, however, he

absolves himself of any blame, saying, “Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so, / Hamlet is of

the faction that is wronged; / His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy” (5.2.251-53). Either Hamlet

is telling a pointless falsehood (which would itself be a case against his moral standards), or he is

being honest about his madness.

In order to be considered noble, a man must be in a stable and self-possessed state of

mind; otherwise, the validity of the decisions he makes, as well as the deeds he commits, must be
called into question. Hamlet, by his own admission at the brink of death, is prone to succumb to

madness at any given moment. This reality on its own makes it hard to believe that he was truly a

noble soul.

Though, as stated earlier, we are not defining “nobility” as “the upper class” for the

purpose of this essay, our definition still implies a possession of honor and importance; after all,

a “humble” man could still possess good ideals or morals. Thus, it is fair to assert that a noble

man carries a healthy and virtuous amount of pride. Hamlet, to the contrary, does not share this

sense of importance and self-worth. His very first soliloquy is filled with despair, as he laments,

“O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the

Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (1.2.133-36). As prince of

Denmark, Hamlet has every reason to feel valued and important. Sadly, however, he

contemplates taking his own life on multiple occasions, and most likely would have done so had

not a devious task been given to him.

That task is to obtain revenge for his father’s murder by subsequently killing his uncle,

Claudius. This command is given to him by a Ghost, who appears in the form of his father, King

Hamlet. The spirit is never confirmed by an outside source to be the soul of the late King, and

Horatio and Marcellus are quite hesitant to accept it to be so. It never occurs to Hamlet, however,

that the Ghost could possibly be a fallen soul doing the devil’s work. Instead, he instantly

believes it to be his father, and embraces its order, crying “… thy commandment all alone shall

live / Within the book and volume of my brain” (1.5.109-10). Even if the spirit is truly that of the

King, his son never questions whether his command is moral, or even reasonable. Rather, he

vows to clear his head of all trivial matters in pursuit of revenge. Regardless of one’s personal
feelings toward Hamlet, it is hard to deny that flinging oneself headlong into a morally dubious

situation is not indicative of a noble heart.

It is one matter to commit oneself to a ghastly task, such as murder; it is another to take it

to an extreme. In Act 3, Hamlet stumbles upon Claudius, praying along in his room. With no

witnesses present, this is Hamlet’s golden opportunity to kill his uncle, then make a quick

getaway and deny any involvement. Instead, he chooses to wait, and enact a greater part of his

scheme. He maliciously plots to catch Claudius “about some act / That has no relish of salvation

in ‘t— / Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, / And that his soul may be as damned

and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (3.4.96-100). Some may argue that Hamlet’s desire to send

his uncle to hell may be a legitimate part of his plan for revenge, since his father was murdered

before he could make his last confession. However, it is not for Hamlet to judge the state of his

father’s soul, and it certainly despicable to attempt to send a soul to Satan.

The character of Hamlet has undeniably appealed to a countless number of readers, past

and present; otherwise, the play would have never achieved the esteemed status it now holds.

Indeed, Hamlet has certain aspects that are praiseworthy, and performs actions that are

commendable. For example, his decision to confront his mother regarding his uncle’s actions

was probably the right thing to do (though it would have been better had he not killed Polonius).

Additionally, making amends with Laertes before their ultimate duel evokes the chivalric values

of medieval knights, and is indicative of some interior goodness. Nevertheless, as logic would

have it, the part does not equal the whole; in the same way, these few instances of virtue

displayed in Hamlet do not mean that Hamlet is an admirable soul. His loathsome deeds, coupled

with his mental instability, ought to indicate that Hamlet, to Horatio’s sure dismay, is not a noble

heart.
I pledge my honor that I have not violated academic honesty during this examination or

assignment.

Dominic Vance

February 5, 2020